How do you know a story is finished? Should I be digging up my old stories?
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Sometimes I have to skip questions because I have too many, so when I'm out, it's a great opportunity to get an almost guaranteed answer.]
Jennifer's first question landed back during the absolute feedback (e-mail/social media/even phone calls) height of the Creepy Guy article, and got lost in the crossfire. But recently during my call for questions (I still need more, BTW) she nudged me about hers, and also wrote a follow up question. I answered both--or tried to.
So this might seem like a weird question but how do you know a story is finished? Sometimes I get to the end of a story and it just doesn't feel finished, but I don't know where to go from there. Also, how do you know when it's time to cut a story loose because it's just not working? How do you know the difference between the difficulty of writing in general and the difficulty of a story that should be abandoned?
There is a saying that no art project is ever finished. They are only ever abandoned.
Of course that’s just the sort of bumper-sticker wisdom that makes for a good image macro with a picture of someone profound (like a Greek Philosopher, James Baldwin in one of his less-radical/more-wise looking poses, or Patrick Stewart dressed as a lobster in the bathtub), but that really doesn’t do much to help young writers figure out if they need to do ten more revisions or burn the draft to keep warm when their not-so-Bohemian landlord shuts off the heat.
Take heart! You're in good company. This is one of those questions that is as old as art itself, and it's probably one that's as hard to imagine there being a solid answer to. I can give you a few guidelines, but ultimately it's going to be up to you to do enough Tai Chi near the waterfall and communing with lotus blossoms and shit to find the zen of this for yourself. The answer comes from within, Grasshopper. Or something.
The simplest answer that I can give you is that you should share your work when you want to--when you're proud of it. Little kids are great to watch for this exact moment of pride as "Mommy, no don't look. It's not done!" becomes "Mommy LOOK!" after only six extra pieces of glued-on macaroni. If you don't want to show the work, don't.
Now as to whether it could be good or just needs to be abandoned, that's even a little harder than that to articulate because one of the things that separates those who are technically proficient in writing (or other craft skills) with artists is the ability to tell if something has that....je ne sais quoi. A million copy editors who will never be writers themselves understand this painfully well. If there's something in that story whispering to you, "Don't let me go. I'm real," then you should hang on no matter what. Keep working that one bit that won't let you let go. Maybe the story ends up being completely different with just that one nugget of real that is whispering to you, but don't let go.
Maybe you need to take that ONE good character and start a whole new story around them, or take that one scene that really popped and make it the start of its own story. Though often the tweaks we need to go from "not quite" to "NAILED IT" are much more subtle. A shift in point of view might make all the difference, or just one scene that is doing too much work for the reader being replaced with something vague. With many starting writers, it's a matter of chopping out a big chunk from the beginning where the protagonist didn't yet have a need that drove the tension of the plot, and once it is gone, you find the story crackles a lot more.
One thing you can't be is afraid to get messy. Play with your story. Tweak it. Fuck around with it just to see what happens. Don't get married to everything you write. It's okay to spend a weekend writing something that will never be published. (Think of it like a fling with someone you would NEVER take home to mom.) An architect spent a lot longer than that getting their degree, and a musician spent a lot longer than that learning their instrument, and a painter spent a lot longer than that throwing away doodles. Writers seem to be unique among artists for thinking that everything they write has to turn into a finished product.
If this is happening to a lot of stories (finishing them and not knowing if they're done), you may want to look at your narrative structure. A very common pitfall that new writers fall into is that they are writing poignant vignettes that aren't actually stories. Your main character has to want something from the moment we meet them. There has to be a chance they won't get it. Balanced forces need to compete with a real possibility of failure. And at the end there has to be a capacity for change. These are such fundamental aspects of storytelling, that writers often feel they are too good to learn them and end up writing stirring, emotional, incredibly-well-written snapshots of interesting characters that lack any sort of central tension or plot arc. A story without a central tension can have a very "Am I done? Or not?" feel about it.
In general though, you have to listen to your artistic side. If you're bored as fuck and would prefer to go change the contact paper in your silverware drawer to continuing, your reader will be too. Abandon ship! If you just don't want to do the work, and you see that it's going to take a lot of work to make the writing pop, then stick a shoe on a doorknob, put your ass in the doorknob's path, and slam the door really hard. Once you really listen, you will likely be surprised at how clearly your artistic sense will guide you in this matter. However, knowing what you should do (abandon a work or really get your ass to work making it good) and actually doing it are two very different things.
Just remember nothing is ever a waste. Not really. It can hurt to abandon something you feel like you've given so much time and energy, but it's never going away completely. If you "abandon" a project, you can't unwrite those pages. You won't remove the experience or forget the lessons you learned. If you start on something new, you'll probably see the best bits of old work showing up here and there. It's not the turns of phrase or the clever quips that show back up, (for those are not what make up real art) but the real characters and the genuine moments and the interesting conflicts. I've often let go of stories that just weren't working, turned to whole other projects, and realized that the things that were important about the abandoned project were starting to peek through in the new one.
It's a question that is probably tainted by the gatekeeper setup within the publishing industry. Writers often have this sense that something is either Good Enough to Publish(tm) and therefore is "done." Or it isn't good enough to publish and therefore it should be sequestered away from prying eyes. This dichotomy is false. You can now show things to people, get feedback, take it back and work on it some more. You can publish it (e-pub or self pub) and then noodle on it a bit if the feedback seems to be that it needs more work. Or you can press a button and send it to someone in Klikzaxistan who you trust to tell you if it's good.
What I can tell you is don't get stuck on perfection.
The world--especially the writing world--rewards completion, not perfection. Unless you seriously want to publish one killer book...ever....in your whole life, keep working. Quantity is quality as Bradbury said. Keep writing. And while revision is a critical part of the process, and probably more important to making "art" than to making consumable media, you can't lose yourself in eternal revision either.
I can name off the top of my head three writers I know personally--one of them a mentor of mine--who are simply in eternal states of retooling their one and only novel--ever submitting it to agents and getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Years have gone by and rather than self publish the thing, shelf it for publication after they maybe have some name recognition and work on a more sellable project, or just putting it away for an extended hibernation to hit it with really fresh eyes, they are constantly punching up, paring down, and tightening--endlessly retooling the one thing for that ONE moment of acceptance. It's a lot to do for a single work and while they retool and retool a lot of *CAREER* time passes them by. (A first book--even if one of the big six picks you up--is probably going to have a very modest run unless you become famous later.) And maybe they will have that be their breakout first opus/great American novel, but it's a lot more likely that they're just holding themselves back from genuine risk under the guise of perfectionism.
Besides you will learn more lessons on how to write something awesome by going and making new mistakes than by trying to endlessly diddle with the old ones.
Follow up: Hey! I see you're looking for questions but I don't think you ever answered mine! I have a follow up question as well. I have a notebook that's now full of rubbish that's not even worthy of a Tumblr fan fiction blog. Do I bother going back to edit it for the sake of editing, even if I have no interest in doing anything with it? (I've also killed several pens, thanks to you- if I wasn't 3000 miles away, married, and a mother to two kids, I'd totally be your groupie).
Very interested to see how you're going to manage with a newborn around. Can't say I've been productive since mine was born, but sleep deprivation has been more of a factor than time for me (my brain feels like mush).
If you have no interest in those old stories, don't go back. Let them go. They will stay with you in all the ways that matter. You can't unlearn those lessons. You can't undo that practice. And if one day you find yourself thinking of a GREAT twist on one of those stories or characters, you can dig it out from the locked chest you keep in the basement behind the dead bodies and under the collection of 90's Vivid DVD's. Until then, trust that with each artistic effort you engage in, you emerge a better and more refined artist, even if you never turn everything you ever do into something you might sell.
It's great to have groupies. Even the married, cross-country, totally conditional kind. The current list is deplorably lacking, and I'll take what I can get! And if it's because I've inspired you to kill pens and spill ink in wild abandon, that's even better. I'll go ahead and talk about you in the vaguest terms--also about shafts and "spilling ink" and stuff--and possibly it will inspire some less married, less 3000-miles-away potential groupies to wonder if they aren't missing out on something sweet.
As for the newborn, it's been interesting, but since it's Uberdude and The Brain's kid, I am still getting good sleep even though I've changed a couple of diapers already that could be their own Super Villain. Their room is on the other side of the battle simulation room too, so even though I help out, I can hang an "Emergencies (or Arch Nemeses Attacks) Only" sign on my quarters door and get plenty of rest.